Preparations are underway to roll out Covid-19 vaccines to 225,000 Kiwis on the frontline, including cleaners, bus drivers, port workers, security staff, air crew and their households.
Health officials have also recommended frail and elderly people needing hospital-level care be included in the priority vaccination group with the majority of New Zealand’s 25 Covid fatalities occurring in aged-care homes.
Medsafe yesterday gave the green light to the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – dubbed Comirnaty – and 225,000 courses are due to land in New Zealand at some point next month but the Government is making preparations in case doses arrive earlier.
It won’t be compulsory for New Zealand’s 10,000 border workers and their families to be vaccinated but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she believed there to be uptake by those “most at risk”.
“Getting vaccinated will save lives and this is the next job of the team of five million.”
The next Kiwis in the queue will be health and rest-home workers to protect them and those they care for, then the roll-out will be widened to the general population from July. It’s yet to be decided whether people who need to travel overseas can get early access.
By the end of the year the Government is hoping almost every Kiwi will have had the jab.
The vaccines will be free, available to everyone over the age of 16 and require two jabs 21 days apart. Medsafe has identified some mild side effects similar to other vaccinations including a sore arm, headaches and fatigue.
The Medsafe approval process started in November with staff assessing clinical data and culminated in a six-hour meeting with a panel of experts to go through hundreds of pages of reports.
Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield said the approval was the “start of a new chapter” and called it a “significant milestone”.
Kiwis could be confident in the vaccine’s efficacy and safety, he said.
“No corners have been cut here. We have gone through a robust process.”
The approval is provisional on Pfizer meeting 58 conditions – including providing ongoing clinical data and full disclosure if any safety concerns emerge – but that won’t affect the roll-out.
Pfizer/BioNTech said it was committed to providing Medsafe with further data, and thanked it for the approval.
Bloomfield described the co-ordination of New Zealand’s largest vaccination programme as a “huge effort” requiring a team of 100 officials and numerous advisory groups.
Once the Pfizer vaccines arrive in the country, they’ll be stored in the nine new -80C freezers split between Auckland and Christchurch which can hold 1.5 million doses.
From there they’ll be distributed through the cold chain to sites administering the jabs but this will require co-ordination because once “thawed” they need to be kept between 2 and 8C and used within five days.
To monitor this the Government has developed the National Immunisation Solution inventory system to track vaccines’ locations, volumes, expiry dates and temperatures. It also allows for health workers and the public to digitally access their own immunisation records.
The effort will require up to 3000 health staff to administer the vaccines at centres similar to the testing sites.
The Government is also set to roll out a vaccine publicity campaign to reassure the vaccine-hesitant Kiwis who need more information with the first tranche of advertising launching this month and costing $3 million.
But it is still gathering advice on how to combat misinformation from anti-vaxxers.
New Zealand pre-purchased 750,000 courses of the Pfizer vaccine in October and has since made deals with three other manufacturers (Janssen Pharmaceutica, Novavax and AstraZeneca) to secure enough for 15 million people.
Medsafe said it would put the other variants through the same robust approvals process.
New Zealand has committed to provide Realm countries with enough doses for their populations and sell extras to other neighbouring island nations.
Ardern said New Zealand’s wait for the vaccine was because the priority for delivery had to be where there was widespread transmission and people were dying daily in large numbers.
Though Ardern acknowledged the responsibility the Government had to protect frontline workers.
National Party Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop said yesterday’s Medsafe approval announcement was good news, but New Zealanders needed more certainty about when the vaccine would be delivered.
The Government had questions to ask regarding its contracts with vaccine suppliers and whether it negotiated hard enough.
“In November 2020, Chris Hipkins boasted that New Zealand would be first in the queue for Covid-19 vaccines but three months later, no vaccines have arrived and the government can’t say when they will.
“The reality is the government has been a laggard when it comes to vaccines. Over 50 other countries have already started vaccinating their populations.”
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